In New York City, my hometown, as in so many cities across the country, a hard-pressed local government and a desperate transit authority are cutting back on services while hiking prices for a deteriorating subway and bus system. For night workers and those out in the lonely, dark early morning hours, some bus lines are simply being eliminated. Meanwhile, in one small settlement of 14,000 people in embattled Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, a single marine platoon is spending on average $400,000 a month on "reconstruction projects." The Marines have, according to a BBC reporter who visited, "put up street lights, cleaned irrigation channels, handed out radios, paved the bazaar, built bridges, and are currently building a new school." Do I feel safer?
In the U.S., policemen and firemen are being laid off, and the budgets of police and fire departments cut back or, in a few small places, eliminated. In Afghanistan, the U.S., having already invested $20 billion in building up the Afghan police and military, is now planning to spend $11.6 billion more this year alone, $12.8 billion in 2012, and more than $6 billion a year thereafter. According to Washington's latest scheme, the Afghan security forces will be increased to 378,000 men in a poverty-stricken land, which means committing U.S. tax dollars to the project into the distant future. Do you feel safer?
In the U.S., basic infrastructure has been fraying, bridges collapsing, natural gas pipelines exploding, and projects like a commuter-rail tunnel connecting New Jersey to New York City are being canceled or put off. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, giant American-funded building projects are revving up (for which locals are being hired), especially a giant embassy/citadel in Kabul at the cost of $511 million (with nearly $200 million more going to the expansion of consular establishments elsewhere in that country). Meanwhile in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital, another monster U.S. citadel-cum-regional-command-center is being built for nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars. Do you feel safer yet?
In the United States, according to the director of the Argonne National Laboratory, the aging national power grid "resembles the patchwork of narrow, winding, badly maintained highways of the 1920s and 1930s" before they were rebuilt as the interstate highway system and cries out for "strategic upgrading." In Afghanistan, USAID has just awarded the Black & Veatch Corporation "a no-bid contract worth $266 million... to pump more power into Kandahar and Helmand provinces." Meanwhile the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is investing $227 million in diesel-generator power plants and electrical-system upgrades for southern Afghanistan. Finally feeling a little safer?
Oh, and in case you think that these reconstruction projects are actually making Afghans feel safer, many of them are ill-built, visible boondoggles, and already crumbling. The cost of 15 large-scale reconstruction programs in Afghanistan studied by McClatchy News ballooned from slightly more than one billion dollars to just under three billion dollars "despite the government's questions about effectiveness or cost." A previous Black & Veatch project to build a diesel-fueled power plant in Kabul for $100 million, for instance, ended up costing $300 million and was a year behind schedule. Schools have reportedly been constructed so shoddily that they would have no hope of withstanding an earthquake and, according to the Washington Post, "roads, canals, and schools built... as part of a special U.S. military program are crumbling under Afghan stewardship." Does anyone feel safer?
Think about this and then consider what TomDispatch regular Ira Chernus calls America's myth of national insecurity.